According to a recent report issued by the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS), drivers aged 70 to 74 are twice as likely to die in an auto crash as drivers aged 30 to 59. When the driver is 80 or over, the risk of death is five times as high. The higher fatality rate for older drivers has more to do with physical frailty than with deterioration of driving skills. Per mile traveled, IIHS found, drivers' risk of being in a crash held constant from ages 30 to 69, rose slightly between 70 and 74 and then more sharply after 74.
Safety experts want new safety-belt designs, adjustable pedals for shorter seniors, and improvements to the seat and steering wheel adjustments. Automakers are concentrating on senior-tailored ergonomics to make driving easier for stiffer, less-dexterous bodies and failing eyesight.
A 1997 study by Federal Highway Administration found that older drivers have a harder time seeing and understanding signs than younger drivers, and are therefore more likely to be ticketed for failing to yield, turning improperly, and running stop signs and red lights. The government is recommending that highway signage be simpler in design and painted in sharply contrasting colors. As depth perception declines, older drivers have more trouble negotiating turns without hitting curbs.
The highway agency recommends that new construction incorporate senior-friendly designs such as sloping curbs rather than block designs to eliminate tire punctures and loss of control after hitting a curb. Communities are also being urged to erect signs warning of approaching traffic lights and to reduce the number of signs at busy intersections.